The Great Leap: hobbled by a slight script

The Arts Club Theatre is presenting The Great Leap by Lauren Yee.

Milton Lim’s performance and Chimerik’s projections are two of the best things about The Great Leap. (Photo by Pink Monkey Studios)

This script’s heart doesn’t start pumping until well in to Act 2. Until then, it’s on the artificial life support of a visually dynamic production.

In The Great Leap, American playwright Lauren Yee tells the story of a Chinese-American kid named Manford. Although he’s only 17, Manford talks his way onto the University of San Francisco’s basketball team just in time to play with them in an exhibition game in China. That story plays out in 1989, so the Tiananmen Square protest is ramping up when the American team arrives in the Chinese capital. In the backstory, which unfolds in 1971, Manford’s coach, Saul, is in Beijing to introduce American-style basketball to China.

Nothing of much importance happens in Act 1. Manford tries to talk Saul into letting him play—but we know how that’s going to turn out, so there’s zero narrative tension. And, in the 1971 set-up, Saul and his Chinese minder Wen Chang, who will become the opposing coach in 1989, banter across their cultural divide. Trying to convey the idea of provoking the opposing team, Saul tells Wen Chang, “You fuck their shit up.” Wen Chang replies, “You copulate on their feces?” There are a whole lot of jokes like that.

There’s also some slightly more substantial content. Encouraging Wen Chang’s players to be more aggressive, Saul says, “It’s always your turn.” Wen Chang comments: “It was such an American way of thinking.” It’s important to explore the cultural gaps and folds that Chinese Americans experience.

But, throughout Act 1, all of the characters are shallowly drawn, the emotional stakes are low, and the minimal narrative development is predictable.

There are two factors that save the act from becoming a complete rout. In the first, projection design company Chimerik and lighting designer John Webber join forces to create dazzling visuals. Chimerik spills all sorts of crazy graphics onto the vast white floor of Heipo C. H. Leung’s set and Webber releases blasts of intense side lighting. The second strength is that Milton Lim, who’s playing Manford, is charismatic. I think it has to do with how physically responsive he is as an actor. But Lim doesn’t really have much to do until Act 2 finds its feet and there’s only so much that groovy lighting can do.

In Act 2, playwright Yee finally lands on a relationship that matters. The nature of that relationship, which is between Manford and Wen Chang, is predictable, but the scenes between these two characters are still affecting. I was moved by the containment Jovanni Sy is bringing to Wen Chang. And Lim shines even more brightly in the second act, in which he has to mime a whole lot of basketball. The guy is a dancer.

Still, Yee’s story structure is simplistic. The next paragraph contains a spoiler alert so be warned.

In the final image, one of the play’s characters turns out to be the man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. This choice is melodramatic and ridiculously presumptuous.

I doubt very much that The Great Leap is ever going to get a better production than the one director Meg Roe and her team are offering here. All of the actors, including Toby Berner as Saul, and Agnes Tong as Manford’s cousin Connie, contribute solid work. But The Great Leap is still a disappointing script.

THE GREAT LEAP By Lauren Yee. Directed by Meg Roe. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Goldcorp Stage on Friday, May 3. Continues until May 19.Tickets.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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